Saturday, April 11, 2009

Never gonna let you down? Don't bet on it (YouTube, the PRS, and a certain Rick Astley song)

This blog has previously covered the disputes between YouTube and various organizations in Britain and Germany.

I last discussed the British situation on March 10, when I briefly referenced the dispute between YouTube and the Performing Rights Society in Britain. Here's what Patrick Walker of YouTube said on March 9:

Our previous licence from PRS for Music has expired, and we've been unable so far to come to an agreement to renew it on terms that are economically sustainable for us. There are two obstacles in these negotiations: prohibitive licensing fees and lack of transparency. We value the creativity of musicians and songwriters and have worked hard with rights-holders to generate significant online revenue for them and to respect copyright. But PRS is now asking us to pay many, many times more for our licence than before. The costs are simply prohibitive for us - under PRS's proposed terms we would lose significant amounts of money with every playback.

Now before you pooh-pooh Google's (YouTube's) arguments here, you have to realize that Google has to maintain a viable revenue model, and that it would be irresponsible for them to bankrupt the entire company to sustain musicians and songwriters.

And how much does this cost Google, do you ask? Well, I'm going to tell you.

I'd be willing to bet that many people in the United States might not be familiar with the name Pete Waterman, but his site describes a literal empire of talent that is assembled under his wing. Take a look at the discography at the site, and you will see that Waterman's name has been linked with a number of huge hits on both sides of the Atlantic, ranging from Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Parts 1 and 2" to hits from 21st century artists such as Kylie Minogue and Geri Halliwell.

Now among that string of hits you'll find a little ditty by a singer named Rick Astley called "Never Gonna Give You Up." Perhaps you've heard of it. BMI has certainly heard of it, because the song is in the BMI catalogue. And Peter Alan Waterman is one of the co-writers of the song, along with Matt Aitken and Mike Stock.

Well, that song has been played a few times on YouTube lately. Try 30 million times as of July 1, 2008. And when you're a songwriter and your song is played 30 million times, you can expect a big payday - even under the old contract under which YouTube was operating at the time.

Steven Perez links to a Gizmodo post that details exactly how much the Waterman Empire collected in songwriter royalties from this massive viral windfall.

"There was I sitting at Christmas thinking, 'I must have made a few bob this year with the old Rickrolling'," he said.

"I rang my publisher and they said 'You'll be all right', until I saw the royalty statement. £11.

That's right. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, viral events in history has resulted in an ELEVEN POUND windfall for the songwriter.

Actually, the co-songwriter. If one person, rather than three, had written the song, then that songwriter would have received a whopping THIRTY-THREE POUNDS.

Granted that Waterman doesn't need the money, but if a huge viral hit is worth less than 50 bucks, then how are the less popular British songwriters supposed to make a living from YouTube?

I'll grant that I'm only hearing half the story, but suddenly the PRS request for an increase in the royalty rate seems reasonable.

Oh, and as noted above, I learned about the Waterman story from Steven Perez. Yes, the "DAMN YOU STEVEN PEREZ" guy.
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